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California Firestorm

Aired November 1, 2003 - 22:00   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Mother Nature finally comes to the rescue in California, with desperately needed rain, snow and icy temperatures.
BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Bob Franken in San Diego. And a couple of well known expressions apply here. The fire is down, but not out. The firefighters are not yet out of the woods.

FRANK BUCKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Frank Buckley live in San Bernardino. More than 100,000 people have been displaced from this fire, a very difficult week for them. I'll have a live report.

LIN: California's governor toured the fire zone today. Gray Davis is my guest tonight. All this and more in this CNN special report.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These people didn't have a chance.


ANNOUNCER: Towering flames ripped through canyons and communities, cutting a path of devastation through forests, lives.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's the one who saved my family. He's the one who (unintelligible.)

ANNOUNCER: And livelihoods.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Unintelligible) took seven years of hard work down the drain.

ANNOUNCER: Coming up, the emotional toll, the financial impact, the losses and perseverance.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm all right. A little delirious, but be a couple hours of sleep, I'll be fine.

ANNOUNCER: This is a CNN special report, LIVE FROM THE FRONTLINES, as firefighters try to contain the CALIFORNIA FIRESTORM.


LIN: Good evening. I'm Carol Lin at the CNN global headquarters in Atlanta. And welcome to this special edition of CNN SATURDAY NIGHT, THE CALIFORNIA FIRESTORM.

To report disasters is one thing, to live it, something else. This is the last thing amateur photographer Jason Minter saw before running for his life. In a 16th of a second, he captured the horror looming over ordinary people whose heroism and heartbreak are at the core of our reporting tonight.

Tonight, we are going to show you the impact of this disaster on people and property. And we're going find out if people around the country will pay a devastating price for California's disaster. Much to cover this evening.

It seemed, though, when you look back, the inevitable. The ingredients were perfect for a firestorm. Gusting hot winds, low humidity, dry vegetation, a spark turns into an inferno.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): While hundreds of families could only wonder what (unintelligible), the Rasmussens turned on the TV and knew almost right away.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We watched as things unfolded and watched as they walked away. And that was hard. But then again, you know, we looked down the street and we seen friends' houses that are just a little damaged. And we know that when they moved on, they saved those houses.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I sat in my favorite window seat and I watched the flames get closer and closer and closer to my dream home.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE When I went out into the driveway, you looked up and the whole sky was completely orange. So we left. I got the two kids, the cat, who just jumped into the car.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It just was pretty scary. I had no clue what to take. My mom said to pack up. It was just really hard to think of what I need to bring with me that would save - savor all those moments and memories that I have.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I couldn't imagine anything worse. It was a huge roar. Fire, smoke in my hair and everything was singing as we were running. And I didn't realize that, you know, for about an hour and a half that the burning was so bad.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She's the one who knocked on our house. She's the one who saved my family. She's the one who says, "Get out. Get out, it's coming."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This was open. This part of the house was open to the ceiling. It was this vaulted, you know, 20 foot ceiling over here. And then, we had a staircase coming up here over there so. And it went to the upstairs. And the master bedroom was over here. And then we had three bedrooms on this side, one, two, and three. And the bath there. And it's all gone. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Holy man. Look at this. Can you believe this, that it's still here? I'm happy as hell that this is still here. This means a lot to me. This is, you know, I'm not a millionaire. I don't have a house in Malibu on the cliffs, but that's what this is to me.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is not the time for me to cry. This is time for me to organize my thoughts and rebuild the whole thing again from scratch.


LIN: Hearing those words saying rebuild from scratch. Say it several thousand times. Some 3300 homes vanished from the southern California landscape over the past seven days. 20 people perished, including a firefighters.

By the latest calculations, nearly 750,000 acres burned. That is about 1200 square miles, an area just little less than the size of Rhode Island.

The firefighters really are the real heroes here. They contained the wildfires in some areas, which are marked in blue there. But if the Santa Ana winds return, the fires could flare up again. That's what the Cedar fire did last Wednesday near Scripps Ranch near San Diego. Nearly 350 homes burned down there. And CNN's Bob Franken joins us live - Bob?

FRANKEN: And across the state, everybody is counting on the weather to try and do what the firefighters have only the limited ability to do, and that is to finally defeat these fires. That is going to take the kind of weather that we're getting right now. It's snowing in some of the areas of the state.

In the mountainous areas where the fires had raged just days before, there's rain, there's cooler weather. All of it has come together to stop the fires from spreading, allowing the people who fight them to go in and dig the trenches that might eventually control them and finally stop the fires so they can finally walk away. That will take a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, many, many people, hundreds of people, thousands of people, are now trying to recover from the fire's effects.


FRANKEN (voice-over): Like thousands of others, Mark and Lori Miville (ph) are combing the incinerated ash and rubble that just a week ago had been the family shelter. They had seen the fire miles away. It had only slightly marred their beautiful view. But suddenly, they had to run for their lives. And now, they were sifting through all that was left, the bits and pieces, parts of lives.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What are looking for here?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My -- some of my jewelry. FRANKEN: As it happens, Lori Miville (ph) last Saturday had not been wearing her wedding band. And now for hour after frustrating hour, they searched for it. In fact, they'd just about given up.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can make something else out of this. You know what? I can just make a new wedding band out of this.

FRANKEN: But she didn't have to. The full day of scratching through the grim debris was suddenly worth it. Lori found her wedding ring.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's been a good day. Man, it's a miracle that it didn't fall out of there or anything.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It wasn't in a box. It was just in there. It was -- I just grabbed a shovel and there it was. Oh, my gosh. Life is good. Oh, my goodness.


FRANKEN: A small thing, which provides a little bit of a push so people can recover from all that has happened to them here. The future, of course, holds a struggle, as they try and recover the many parts of their life that was swept away by the wildfires -- Carol?

LIN: Bob, so graphically illustrated by the devastation behind you. Thank you very much for reporting live tonight.

Well, Bob was just talking about some of the 100,000 people driven from their homes. That is like the entire population of Burbank, California suddenly becoming refugees. Many of those new refugees led comfortable and stable suburban lives. Now they are instantly homeless.

CNN'S Frank Buckley has that part of the story for us tonight from an airplane hangar in San Bernardino, which has now become a Red Cross shelter.

Frank, so many heart rendering stories out there?

BUCKLEY: There are, Carol. And these are people just like us, and who never thought they'd find themselves sleeping in a drafty old airport hangar, where it's cold, sleeping on cots next to people they don't even know, wondering what has happened to their homes.


BUCKLEY (voice-over): An old airplane hangar is now home to more than 1200 people. Like Ruby Esquibel, who managed to get her most prized possession out of her home when she was evacuated.

RUBY ESQUIBEL, RESIDENT: Oh, I saved this one. This is my -- my granddaughter made that for me.

BUCKLEY: She doesn't know yet if her home burned or survived.

ESQUIBEL: I've got a beautiful home, you know, and that was an expensive home, but I mean, it's my castle. It's my castle.

BUCKLEY: Her emotion matched by many people here, who have been sleeping on cots and sharing space with strangers for up to a week.

Christina and Gregario Cardenas and their two children, Julian and Daniel and their child to come four months from now, are also among the residents here. They know their home burned, but Christina says she only cries about it after the children have gone to bed.

CHRISTINA CARDENAS, RESIDENT: I don't want to be too upset because the baby will feel it. I don't want my kids to see me. You know, I have to do it when they're asleep.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've got a lot of problems up there with power lines down, tree fall issues.

BUCKLEY: Officials brief the evacuees constantly, but they all want to see their homes with their own eyes. Who wouldn't? And most of them can't. They are stopped at checkpoints when the roads above are considered unsafe. It is frustrating.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why can't we go home?

BUCKLEY: Some residents do receive emergency re-entry passes. In this car, Marina Vasquez and Al Ocky (ph) are bound for home, but they've heard that it's gone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look at our washer and dryer.

BUCKLEY: And now they know it's true. But somehow, it was necessary, they say, to come and look.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We just had to see it for ourselves.

BUCKLEY: Others continue to wait it out at the shelter. For now, this is home. New friendships are forming. Even pets have a place here. 300 of them, last count. And among these new neighbors, the spirit of community is more evident than ever.

Just ask the caterer and the meat supplier who provided meals all day at their expense for everyone here. When Leonard Snyder asked his friend Tom Cirotta (ph) for a break on the meat, he refused.

LEONARD SNYDER: I said I wanted a good price. He said, no, I want give you a good price. I want to do better than that. Let us put it on.


BUCKLEY: So those men ended up coming together and feeding all these folks together. Last night, some 1263 people stayed in this shelter. It is one of 10 that is open across California to help fire victims. Later on in the program, Carol, we're going to hear live from one of the folks who is here, to get her impressions of this week -- Carol?

LIN: That's right, Frank. And we're going to be getting some of your impressions. I know that you spent a pretty tough week out there with firefighters and with victims of the fire. We'll be looking forward to your reporter's notebook. Frank Buckley, reporting live.

Well, it has been a long week for everyone, including the governor of California. Governor Gray Davis joins us now tonight to talk about this unprecedented disaster.

Good evening, governor. Thank you for being here tonight.

GOV. GRAY DAVIS, CALIF.: Good evening, Carol.

LIN: You had a chance to tour some of the fire zones, talk with some of the fire victims with the homeland security chief, Tom Ridge. And I'm wondering, what is your assessment? He called this a devastation that simply took his breath away.

DAVIS: I can't improve upon that language. I think you saw some scenes of the evacuees and victims down at San Bernardino Airport. I've been there myself. It just breaks your heart. You know, people have suffered great loss. Their memories, their treasured possessions all up in flames. And yet, they remain positive. And as Frank Buckley suggested, many people pour in with generous gifts and clothing, with a hug for the folks who are temporarily out of a home. It makes your proud of Californians. They have really rallied. And they're really determined to help their neighbors, who are really in need.

LIN: It is nice to see that human spirit in the face of this disaster. I'm wondering if you could clarify something for us in the arson investigation. Yesterday, I spoke with the chief arson investigator for the state of California. He said several people were in custody, including the person that matched the description of a young man who was seen throwing something out of a light colored van in the San Bernardino County area that may have triggered the devastating fire there. Can you give us an update? Are there arrests, people in custody?

DAVIS: Actually, I'm not aware there are arrests, Carol. But I assure you there will be. These arsonists, as I said, destroyed homes, destroyed dreams, destroyed people's prized possessions. I mean, this is a form of domestic terrorism. And I hope we throw the book at them. They have ravaged lives and crushed innocent people who I know will rise again, but shouldn't have to go through this trauma, were it not for the, you know, twisted minds of the arsonists, it created a lot, not all, but a lot of these fires.

LIN: Well, if you say that it's a form of domestic terrorism, if and when somebody is caught and prosecuted, would they qualify to be prosecuted under the terrorism laws? DAVIS: Well, that's for the lawyers to determine. Obviously, the laws in this state are pretty tough. And if you took someone's lives, then it'll be a capital offense. So believe me, the full weight of the law will come down on these people as it well should.

LIN: Much has been made of your April request for more than $400 million to clear away a lot of the dead trees that had been damaged the natural disaster of beetle infestation and what not. That request was denied just this past week.

Do you feel at this point that this disaster could have been prevented?

DAVIS: Obviously, I wish we'd gotten money from the federal government in larger amounts. We did get about $40 million. I'm grateful for that, but this -- and there's still time to provide us with more money, because many of those diseased trees are still there. I toured with a number of legislators from the area on Thursday. And you can see these orange, brown colored trees, which stick out like a sore thumb from a -- from the normal green color.

And they're -- I'd say one of out five trees are damaged. So they still present a fire hazard. They'll still go up like a Roman candle.

Do I wish we got money sooner? Yes, but in talking with Governor Ridge today, it's clear to me that after we put the fires out, and after we get people back on their feet, we really need to look at how we can change laws and change regulations because technically, a diseased tree does not qualify as a national disaster, but we know it's a disaster waiting to happen. So we have to change the laws, to make sure we can get money to prevent problems, not just deal with them after the fact.

LIN: After the fact. And yet, obviously, there are questions about the relationship between state officials and federal government. For example, air pilots who were saying that they could have flown 100 gallon tankers over those fires much sooner, but they couldn't get federal clearance to take off.

DAVIS: Again, these are problems we have to work out after the fact. I really believe in not pointing fingers, particularly when people are still hurting and need our help and when the last flames have yet to be extinguished.

LIN: Got you.

DAVIS: But be clear. We're going to take a look at this. We're going to find ways that we can fight these fires better in the future. And if you're hurting, you don't want to hear that a local official can't do something because a state or federal official won't let them. You just want help and you want it quickly.

LIN: I understand.

DAVIS: And you deserve to get it. LIN: I understand. This is a disaster that is going to span two administrations, yours and the incoming Governor...

DAVIS: Right.

LIN: ...Arnold Schwarzenegger. What sort of impact on the end result do you think this will have in this transition? Has he been cooperative?

DAVIS: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I talk to Governor-elect Schwarzenegger every day. I talked to him again today. We were together yesterday. I was grateful that he used his trip to Washington to remind people that we need help and we need it now. And I thank him for his efforts, which I think we're quite successful.

We realize that this is a problem that will span the transition. And I believe my job is to keep him fully briefed and give them whatever assistance he wants, because he'll still be dealing with this when he takes office in a couple weeks.

LIN: Yes. And dealing with it for years to come. Thank you very much, Governor Gray Davis.

DAVIS: Thank you, Carol. Thank you.

LIN: Well, wildfire is indiscriminate in its destruction. Even as firefighters were out battling the flames, their own homes were burning to the ground.

CNN's Jason Carroll has the story of one of them in the devastated town of Cuyamaca.



JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is David Southcott's new home. It's the late Cuyamaca Fire Department station. He'll be staying here with his Labrador, Coco.

SOUTHCOTT: She's a little bit shell-shocked. A lot of people and stuff. And she's a little camera shy.

CARROLL: Southcott (ph) is a volunteer firefighter at this station. He was out trying to save other homes and lives, only to find the Cedar wildfire had taken his own home.

SOUTHCOTT: I'd rather have my dad's house standing, my friend's house standing, than have my own, even though it hurts. And the people that lost up here, there's a lot of loss. And we're no heroes. We're just doing our job and doing the best we can.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here's some pants. I don't know if they'll fit you, but... CARROLL: The community is doing what it can to help. Seven of the eight volunteer firefighters at the station lost their homes. On the way to Southcott's home, the level of destruction is more clear. The fire destroyed more than 100 homes at the small mountain community about an hour north of San Diego.

SOUTHCOTT: It really hasn't hit home yet. You know, every time I go back and look at my place, this will be the third time I've gone back, I've never had enough time to really stay there and pick through anything because I've been going out and helping other community members.

Not much left of 2400 square feet. They had a basement down below. Down below, then they had -- this is the first story. And then it had a story above it with a master bedroom.

This is -- was a back door right here going into the sunroom. It's just unbelievable that you can turn something into dust.

CARROLL: Southcott says he will rebuild here. His only regret through all of this, he wishes he could have saved pictures of his two sons.

Jason Carroll, CNN, Cuyamaca, California.


LIN: And of course, firefighter Steve Rucker gave his life fighting the flames this week. Today, after they came off the fire lines, some of his comrades paid him a special tribute. Take a look at this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One, two, three...

GROUP: Rucker!


LIN: They parked 55 trucks from 11 different strike teams in a semi-circle. The firefighters themselves spelled out the name of fallen comrade. They also set up a fund to help Rucker's widow and his two children.

Well, the gray and black clouds of smoke were a serious threat to firefighters. And when we return, eyes wide open, but no clear vision and no clean air. How dangerous is it to breathe right now in California? And later, dream homes turned to ash. Can insurance claims, well at least help rebuild the memories?


LIN: Live pictures from Scripps Ranch in San Diego County, where nearly 400 homes were lost. It has been 11 days since the first fires broke out. 11 days of scorching flames, fear, and heroism. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LIN (voice-over): Tuesday, October 21, a sunny day in southern California, but a storm is brewing, a firestorm. East of Los Angeles near Fontana, in San Bernardino County, a small fire starts. Authorities suspect arson. They think they'll soon it have contained. They're wrong. The fire grows and becomes the Grand Prix fire.

The same day on Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, live ordinance exercises spark another fire. More small fires reported in Riverside and Ventura Counties. By Thursday, 500 acres on fire in Ventura County. 2800 acres at Camp Pendleton. Five homes burned in Riverside County. And the Grand Prix fire has scorched more than 5,000 acres.

The state issues a fire weather watch. The forecast, hot, dry, and three words feared by firefighter and residents, Santa Ana winds.

By Friday, thousands of residents evacuated. Schools closed. Freeways shut down. The sky filled with smoke and an orange glow. Saturday, San Bernardino County. Authorities say two men in a gray van throw something into the bush and start the old fire. Another fire erupts in Simi Valley, north of Los Angeles. And in San Diego County, a hunter lost in the woods, shoots a flare. The start, fires believe, of the Cedar fire.

Sunday, the Santa Ana winds still blow. And the San Diego fires force an air traffic control center to close, disrupting air traffic across the country. At least 10 major fires now burn. More than a dozen people dead. 700 homes destroyed. And thousands of Californians become homeless.

Monday, the old fire and the Grand Prix fire merge. Wednesday, the inferno claims its first firefighter. By Thursday, 20 people killed, 650 acres burned. At least 2600 homes destroyed. But there is hope amidst the smoke, a the temperature drops, humidity rises. Drizzle falls, but the winds still remains.


LIN: And since then, the winds have died down. There's been a little bit of rain and ironically even some snow, as these desert hot winds pull back.


LIN: Well, in addition to the death and devastation, smoke fumes are plaguing parts of California. This wall of smoke and flame, for example, in the sky tells the whole story. NASA is quoted in "The L.A. Times" as saying winds have carried smoke from the fires all the way to the Great Lakes region.

Gary Tuchman looks at the impact.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Phyllis Taylor and her granddaughter, Savanna, saw, heard, and breathed in the smoke and flames from the wildfires.

PHYLLIS TAYLOR, CLAREMONT RESIDENT: I have asthma. It doesn't normally bother me all that much, but during the smoke and fires and everything, it really seemed to bother me. I had to use my inhaler, which I normally never do.

TUCHMAN: And what happened with your granddaughter?

TAYLOR: Irritation of the eyes. Redness in the eyes.

TUCHMAN: They are not alone. At this hospital in Upland, California, east of Los Angeles, Saturday was...

KEVIN PARKES, DR., UPLAND, CALIF.: The busiest night that I've had in the emergency department here in fact probably anywhere that I've worked.

TUCHMAN: And you've been a physician for how long?

PARKES: For eight years.

TUCHMAN: Many people, particularly firefighters, have breathed the smoke in from close. Most others have breathed it from some distance. While being farther away is less risky, anybody inhaling the choking smoke could be affected by the particulates, tiny particles and wood smoke, one-sixtieth as thick as a human hair.

SAM ATWOOD, AIR QUALITY MGT. DIST.: They're so tiny and they get deep down into our lungs. And the body just is not able to get rid of them. In fact, they can even pass into the bloodstream. And these are of concern, both in short term for their irritant effects, as well as the well established medical link between high levels of particulates and elevated death rates.

TUCHMAN: The most vulnerable are the very young, the elderly, and the already sick.

PARKES: We've had people who have ended up on ventilators, because their respiratory distress is so bad when they came in, caused by the smoke.

TUCHMAN: Many facts about these fires are definitively known. The number of people who died, who were hurt, the number of homes destroyed.

(on camera): But the repercussions from the air quality are largely unknown and could be for years to come.

(voice-over): Long term effects from breathing in particulates and toxins are constantly under study. The southern California wildfires will now add to that body of research.

Gary Tuchman, CNN, Claremont, California. (END VIDEOTAPE)

LIN: So what should you know before moving to or building in certain areas? We're going to have some tips for staying out of the path of destruction when our CNN special continues.

Also, who pays? Will Californians have to dig deeper? Or will the rest of the country have to pay for more insurance? You'll want to grab a pencil for this answer.


LIN: Hundreds of thousands of acres burned. Thousands of lives and homes are destroyed. The impact of these fires will be felt for years. Our next two reports deal with what happens after the firefighters go home.

The southern California wildfires are the most expensive disaster the state has ever faced. But financially, the fire cuts two ways. It can actually help the state.

We asked CNN financial news reporter Kathleen Hayes to investigate the economic impact.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, this is some terrible devastation here. I believe....

KATHLEEN HAYS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: $900 million in homes destroyed or damaged. More than $130 million in firefighting costs. And factor in losses to businesses.

As southern Californians sift through the ashes, it's clear the financial costs are high and rising. California Governor Gray Davis puts it at $2 billion.

GOV. GRAY DAVIS, CALIFORNIA: This may be the worst disaster the state has ever faced. And it's likely to be the costliest.

HAYS: The good news is this area represents just five percent of the state's nearly $1.4 trillion economy. And flames missed key parts of southern California's diverse economy, like most of L.A. County and all of Orange County.

The fires that ravaged Oakland and Alameda Counties east of San Francisco more than a decade ago and caused $1.7 billion of losses also send a ray of hope to southern California. When the rebuilding starts, local businesses make money and hire workers.

JACK KYSER, L.A. COUNTY ECON. DEV.: Industries that are going to benefit as the reconstruction gets going would definitely be homebuilding, construction, and then retail, and of course all their suppliers.

HAYS: Lasting pain will be felt in the state's finances, as officials try to figure out how to pay for the extra costs of fighting the fires.

DAVID WYSS, STANDARD & POORS: The real problem in California's going to be the impact on the state budget. And the state budget in California is already a total mess. The additional costs of fighting the fire, helping out the people who are displaced, rebuilding, all of that is going to add costs to the state government, and going to make the budget an even bigger mess.

HAYS: Some say Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger may have to do what he said he would never do.

KYSER: He promised no new taxes, but this could sort of be something that would allow him to increase taxes.

HAYS: As for the United States overall, most say this won't have much impact.

WYSS: 1,000 homes, 2,000 homes sounds like a lot, but you know, even at $200,000 each, it's hard to get that up much over $1 billion. And that's a drop in the bucket nationally.

HAYS: But when it comes to measuring the emotional costs, even economists agree they are enormous and will take a toll for some time to come.

Kathleen Hays, CNN Financial News.


LIN: Well, the last time California faced disaster on this scale, it took years for insurance companies to pay off claims. Yet this firestorm is the -- is actually worse than the historic Malibu, Laguna and Oakland fires combined. I spoke earlier with California's insurance commissioner, John Garamendi. And I asked him to assess the damage and who's going to pay to rebuild.


JOHN GARAMENDI, CALIF. INSURANCE COMM.: We really don't know the full extent of it. There's probably close to 3,000 homes. Rough estimates somewhere in the $2 billion range, not including the cost of fighting the fires.

LIN: Many of these people still haven't even been able to get back into their homes. But once they do, how many do you actually think have the replacement cost type of insurance? Something that will actually pay for them to be whole again and rebuild?

GARAMENDI: I'm really concerned about that. The kinds of policies that are now being sold in California do not guarantee replacement. And the extraordinary run-up in the inflation of construction here may make it very, very difficult. Plus, there's going to be additional inflation costs because of the 3,000 homes that have to be rebuilt in a very short period of time. Could be trouble.

LIN: So what do you think is the biggest mistake, then, that homeowners can make when they're initially filing their claims?

GARAMENDI: The biggest mistake that they can make is to rush it. Be patient. Take a little extra time, get the right numbers, get the right bids. If you're going to rebuild your house and make sure that you're getting the very best possible. Contact my 800 number, 1-800- 927-HELP and we'll work our way through the problems with you.

LIN: Back in the disasters of 1993, the Oakland Hills fires, the Laguna Beach fires, the Malibu fires, there were a lot of problems with insurers afterwards. A lot of dragging of feet and settling these claims. Do you feel that lessons were learned from that? Have the -- are the insurers going to pony up the money and help these people rebuild?

GARAMENDI: Well, they had better. There's no doubt they're going to be forced by me, by my department to honor the full value of their commitments. We expect them to do that. Following those disasters, we really hammered them. We put new regulations in place. Unfortunately, my successor really ruined things at the Northridge earthquake, when he basically took money and let the insurers off the hook. And the policyholders are really harmed.

But I'm back in town. Insurers know that. I believe they'll fully honor their full commitment.

LIN: At the same time, for those of us who don't live in California, are we likely to see insurance rates go up across the country in order to help these homeowners become whole again?

GARAMENDI: I don't think so. Every year, you and I and every other homeowner pays a small amount of their premium to cover catastrophes such as this. For California, the insurance companies have to justify any rate increase. And they know that I don't have -- I have a very negative view about raising rates because of this. We'll all see, however, what the final numbers come out. There's also reinsurance that'll probably kick in here.

But I think on the whole, the insurance companies anticipate every year that these kinds of disasters will happen.


LIN: Commissioner Garamendi has partnered with law enforcement, including homeland security on a task force to investigate and prosecute scam artists trying to rip off fire victims.

We'll Cuyamaca wasn't famous until it disappeared. No historic landmark, no state park, no houses. When we return, we are going to talk to the man who's head of Cuyamaca, at least what's left of it.

But first, what they saw that you haven't. We'll ask our reporters to share some of their behind the scene stories and pictures.



ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, GOV.-ELECT, CALIF: I have tremendous respect and admiration for the firefighters that are working here day and night on this fire. I, in my movies, played heroes. But those firefighters are true heroes.


LIN: Usually when we're reporting on fires, we talk about firefighters in terms of X number of firefighters on the scene. The finer detail of their heroism often gets lost in the facts. And that's why we like it when our correspondents share their notebooks with us.

We're bringing back our Frank Buckley to do just that. Frank, you had a really compelling week. You actually spent a lot of time with these firefighters out there, where they lived, where they worked. What was that experience like for you?

BUCKLEY: Well, whatever experience I had, I had it with a team. Tom Larson, the guy behind the camera right now, Sarah Wisefeld, who is running our audio and Tracy Tamura, the producer, all of us saw this together, but we saw some incredible things.

You know, one night in particular, we saw a team in action, strike team 6224A. They were fighting the fire near Cedar Glen or in Cedar Glen. That was the area where some 200 homes burned. And we saw the dangers that we faced, the obvious dangers like fire, but also snags, which are the tops of trees that break or burn off and fall down.

One firefighter was -- took a glancing blow from one of those and got injured. The firefighters told me that if had been a direct hit, that could have been fatal.

Another aspect of covering those guys that was special for me was that one of the five engines on that team was from my hometown, Twenty-nine Palms, California. So I had that added sense of responsibility of covering my hometown guys. And also a sense of pride of covering these guys.

And the one thing that I don't think that any of us could really convey is the sense of passion that these firefighters feel for, you know, just structures and homes that are not theirs. I mean, like my guys from Twenty-nine Palms, they don't live up here in the mountains. They live in the desert. But we were talking to a battalion chief Nunez, who was heading up this strike team. And I said to him, you know, why do you guys care so much? These are just homes here. And he said because they are homes. You know, these are homes of people and they really do care. And I hope we were able to convey that.

LIN: Yes, and I bet every single one of those firefighters out there was thinking about -- the very people behind you. I mean, these are people, many of them haven't even had a chance to go back and see if their homes are even standing anymore? BUCKLEY: They do. And let me, in fact, introduce you to one person who's been standing here talking to me, Sharon Stuckey. And Sharon, you were telling me a little while ago that you have an apartment and you don't know what's happened to it.

SHARON STUCKEY, SKY FOREST RESIDENT: There's been a lot of speculation. I've heard rumors back and forth. You know, it's there. It's not there. I haven't seen it for myself yet. So I'm waiting to go home.

BUCKLEY: Can you try to convey what we have experienced all week, this feeling that you folks have of not knowing. What is that like?

STUCKEY: A little helpless, a lot helpless. I just try not to think about it right now. I think about my mom's house and hoping it's OK. And I've been here at the shelter since yesterday. And there's just a lot to keep your mind busy here, a lot of good things going on.

BUCKLEY: All right, thanks a lot, Sharon.

STUCKEY: Thank you.

BUCKLEY: We wish you well.

STUCKEY: Thank you.

BUCKLEY: And Sharon was telling us, Carol, that people here at night, for example, last night she said it was very cold. She woke up. Someone came by and said, "are you cold? Here, let me put a blanket on you." Someone she doesn't know. That's the kind of caring and the good stuff that's been going on here at this shelter.

LIN: Yes, and it really helps when people come together in a disaster. Thanks very much, Frank, for sharing your memories from this week.

BUCKLEY: You bet.

LIN: Frank Buckley reporting live.

Well, a small town that was and is no more. Cuyamaca becomes famous after it's gone when CALIFORNIA FIRESTORM continues.


LIN: In a disaster like this, there are stories of heroism and stories of loss. This next story is one of heartbreak. There is a small town in the hills of San Diego County. Its name is Cuyamaca. And a good bit of today is gone.

Greg Cox is the chairman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. And Greg, you know, I don't know what to say about these people. I mean, they've not only lost their homes, they've lost everything around them and what defines them as a community. GREG COX, SAN DIEGO CO. SUPERVISOR: Yes, well Cuyamaca's been a very charming place. People go there to visit. Julian is a community that has been pretty well wiped out.

We've had almost 400,000 acres burn in San Diego County, 90 percent of which is in the unincorporated area. And a lot of charming areas have been lost.

LIN: How big is Cuyamaca? Or rather, maybe I should ask you how small is Cuyamaca?

COX: Well, Cuyamaca has a small lake. And it has a development that's relatively new of very expensive homes. Probably about 150 were lost in this Cedar fire. But that's pretty small percentage of the homes that were lost overall, where the Cedar fire was about 2200 homes that had been lost so far. The Paradise fire, which was the other large fire that's still not contained. We've lost about 170 homes. So this has hit San Diego County very, very hard.

LIN: Yes, is your home still intact?

COX: I live in the southern part of the county that was relatively unscathed by the fires, but I tell you, the relief effort here, I mean, we still have one of the fires, the Cedar fire's about 90 percent contained. The Paradise fire's about 65 percent contained, but we've begun the relief effort. We've opened some local assistance centers. And the community is really coming together and raising funds to help the people that have been victims of this fire.

LIN: But what happens to an entire town like Cuyamaca? I mean, how do they rebuild? And what do they rally around, if there's nothing there? There's no city hall. There's no, you know, community center. There are no neighborhoods?

COX: Well, I've spent most of today out at our local assistance center in Alpine, which is the area that is serving the Cuyamaca area. And it's been interesting to see the number of people coming to reprocess, about 250 people today. We had all the services there. And it is almost, in some respects, kind of cathartic. It's kind of an opportunity for people to see each other, that have been victimized by this fire, and to get the rebuilding process going in their communities.

And so, I think right now, everybody seems to want to rebuild where their homes were. They moved there for a reason. They liked their neighbors. And it seems like everybody wants to just get under the process as quick as they can, to rebuild their lives and rebuild their homes and rebuild their community.

LIN: So if Julian was known as a mining time, and I think Cuyamaca was known for its apple cider, what are these communities going to be known for, say five, 10 years from now?

COX: Well, these communities have a lot of heart. And I can guarantee you that they're going to get together and they're going to help each other rebuild their homes. And you know, the vegetation is going to be gone. The homes will be rebuilt, but I mean, they'll be an extensive effort to begin a reforestry project.

And I think in five years, you're going to find these communities every bit as vibrant as they were before. Obviously, with a little less vegetation, but I think the community heart and soul is there. And they're coming together like they've never come together before.

LIN: Greg Cox, we're going to be looking forward to that. And as well as covering the great stories coming out of that rebuild. Thank you very much for joining us.

COX: Thank you, Carol.

LIN: Well, they followed the fires doing their job. They weren't firefighters, but reporters from California's big and little TV stations. Their stories are next.


LIN: A fast moving story spread out over long distances takes dozens, if not hundreds of people to cover it well. Along with CNN crews, we could not have given you the full story without the great work of our affiliate partners.

Here's a look at how this story unfolded.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Huge flames burning right now. They've got an engine company that's out in front. As we pull back a little bit, you can see that there are a handful of homes here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's an absolute firestorm. It's -- this is completely -- hold the cameras. That's a fire. There's a fire coming at us right now. Fire and flame and dust. Dave, can you get -- come around the side here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is frustrating when the weather's not working. And you got to fight the elements at the same time. We're going to wind shifts in here every half an hour. Every plan we come up with just doesn't work out for us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come with me for a moment. Can I chase you down here? I'm going to go over this point here and just -- the wind -- it did get going. And you had to hold on to Jay, because he's a lot smaller than I am and he almost gets blown over.

But this is what it's like and this is what we're seeing. This is the visibility. This is what firefighters have to look at as they look for the fire...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Their homes are right in the pathway, maybe about a quarter mile away from all these flames.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The huge flare-up on the north side of the freeway. There's not that much wind either. You wouldn't think that these things would flare up as heavy as they are. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Go a little left, Rick, and you'll see the flames. Right -- you'll see the left corner of our shot there, right there. There's some flames. See it, where it's just trying to jump the freeway right there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Coming over us on the left side right now, another one of the Ventura County fire helicopters.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The fire's getting too close to us. I think we need to move. So if you want one last picture, you better take it soon, because we're going to hop on the truck. This is moving very fast.


LIN: And that wraps it up. This CNN special, THE CALIFORNIA FIRESTORM. Thanks so much for joining us. We're going to leave you now with some lasting impressions, images that Californians and the rest of us will never forget. Good night.


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